MISSOULA — The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority this week gained new support after Stillwater County voted to join and, along with Rosebud County, will petition the rail organization for membership.
The authority, which officially formed last year, now claims at least 13 counties stretching from east to west across Montana’s southern tier. While the counties are politically diverse, they’re each united in an effort to restore intercity rail to the old North Coast Hiawatha route.
The organization’s momentum comes as Sen. Jon Tester and nine other senators this week reached a deal in a sizable infrastructure bill that includes funding for Amtrak and the nation’s passenger rail system.
The funding contains around $12 billion earmarked for intercity rail, which could help fund restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha, according to Dave Strohmaier, the Montana rail authority’s president.
“My understanding in talking with Tester’s legislative director yesterday is that a minimum of 20% of the $12B must be spent on enhancements related to long-distance routes, which is exactly what we are proposing,” said Strohmaier, who also serves as a Missoula County commissioner.
The Senate has already advanced the plan, which begins the process of debate and potential amendments. The bill doesn’t raise taxes but pays for itself through tax gaps and various clawbacks from prior legislation, Tester said.
“Should the legislation pass in Congress and get signed into law, we’ll be making a strong case to the secretary of transportation that our region of the country be prioritized for analysis,” Strohmaier said. “Ideally, we’ll then be able to roll seamlessly from analysis into project implementation.”
The combined surface transportation and infrastructure bill also contains $15 million for a national study on restoration of long-distance routes.
In early July, the Montana rail authority announced its plans to pursue a federal grant to complete a study detailing the social and economic benefits of restoring the southern route.
The route would follow a “very heavily traversed corridor” along the old North Coast Hiawatha route that provided service between 1971 and 1979 between South Dakota and Washington.
“We’ll be having a board summit in Lewistown in August,” Strohmaier said. “Our (virtual) keynote speaker will be the Acting Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Amit Bose.”